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ClassicsOnline Home » BRITTEN, B.: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake / Tit for Tat / Folk Song Arrangements (English Song, Vol. 22) (R. Williams, Burnside)
Britten wrote his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74 for the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1965. The singer admired the ‘concentration and enigmatic smile’ of the settings, and Britten constructed, through alternation of proverbs with songs, and an intense contemplation on the human and the eternal, one of his greatest song cycles. By contrast Tit for Tat sees Britten revisiting youthful, light-spirited settings of the poet Walter de la Mare. The folk-song arrangements are amongst his most famous, and beloved.
By William Hedley
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake • Tit for Tat • Folk-songs
Born in, Suffolk on St Cecilia’s Day 1913, Benjamin Britten was a prodigious musician, showing a great determination in his pursuit of composition from a very early age. He composed his first work—a song—at the age of five, and by the time he began formal studies in composition with Frank Bridge in January 1928, when he was fourteen, he had written more than 500 works, including numerous piano and chamber works, dozens of songs, and some great symphonic essays. This application to his art was to be a defining feature of Britten’s professional life as a mature composer, being perhaps the key to the apparently effortless genius he achieved in his greatest works.
As composer, pianist and conductor, Britten developed close associations with performers, writing many of his works with specific artists in mind. This was particularly so with his vocal works, many of which were composed for his partner of forty years, the tenor Peter Pears, whom he met in 1937. While many of his major song cycles and principal operatic rôles were created for Pears, Britten admittedly finding it difficult to write for any other voice, he did compose for other singers on occasion. One such association began in the early 1960s when Britten was commissioned to write a work for the celebrations surrounding the consecration in May 1962 of the newly built Coventry Cathedral: the War Requiem. The baritone soloist in the War Requiem was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and with this work began an association that continued with the writing of the Cantata Misericordium for him and Pears in 1963. Britten and Fischer-Dieskau were at this time discussing at some length the writing of an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which Fischer-Dieskau would have played Lear alongside Pears as the Fool. While the opera never came to fruition, their collaboration continued in 1965 when Britten composed a song cycle for Fischer-Dieskau, of which they gave the première together at the Aldeburgh Festival of that year: the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, which Britten dedicated to Fischer-Dieskau: ‘To Dieter: the past and the future’.
Britten asked Pears to select the texts for the cycle, which, as the title suggests, he chose from the writings of the English visionary artist and poet, William Blake, from his Songs of Experience, Auguries of Innocence and Proverbs of Hell. Fischer-Dieskau wrote that he was ‘especially taken with the terseness, the British understatement, the intellectual concentration, and the enigmatic smile of these dense, linguistically original sayings.’ Blake’s poems and aphorisms are certainly dense and, ranging as they do from the metaphorical to the provocatively cynical, they demand some thought to elicit their meaning. The result is one of Britten’s most sombre song cycles; a work that questions the human condition, our relationships both human and eternal, and the folly of man’s preoccupations; and while the words were written nearly two centuries ago, Britten’s music seems to make them feel contemporary; fresh and relevant for the present time.
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake is, unusually for Britten, set as one continuous piece. The seven proverbs, however, as well as providing links between the poems, act as unifying markers throughout the work. These starkly set proverbs are each based on the same four-note melodic motif; a set of variations akin to the series of variations that form the interludes between scenes in Britten’s 1954 chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw.
In the first two songs the chimney sweeper seems to become the personification of woe, with Blake’s play upon the crying of his wares, ‘[s]weep’, embodying that sorrow, half-hidden behind Britten’s imagining of the sweep’s melancholy dance. At the heart of the work is the most substantial song of the cycle, A Poison Tree, a setting of a poem which seems to echo the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, and in which the chromatic snaking of the vocal line seems to depict the singer’s wrath wrapping itself ever tighter within his being. Britten’s accompaniment in The Tyger, redolent of the finale of his recent Cello Sonata, seems to portray the tiger’s growls in the first of two songs in which Blake’s comparisons of man with beast and insect ask questions as to our common origins and aspirations: are we in fact all that different? The final proverbs and songs contemplate time and eternity, the variation of Proverb VI notably developed to sound the knells of time. In the last proverb the variation motif is developed in the voice, but also continues into the final song, its shape becoming the basis of the accompaniment of the song. The figure finally finds resolution at the close of the cycle, dwelling in the ‘Realms of day’.
In his later years Britten revisited some of his extensive juvenilia, resulting in a number of ‘new’ works. One such work was performed for the first time by the baritone John Shirley Quirk, accompanied by Britten, at the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival. This was a set of five settings of poems by Walter de la Mare composed between the ages of fourteen and seventeen (1929–1931), which in the spring of 1968 Britten brought together, with only minor polishings, under the title Tit for Tat. De la Mare was a favourite poet of Britten’s youth, and was a significant poet for Britten in that his first published work was a set of de la Mare part-songs, issued in 1932 when Britten was eighteen years old. Aptly, the set was dedicated to de la Mare’s son, Richard, who in 1966 had become chairman of Britten’s publisher, Faber Music.
The levity and directness of these early songs contrast most notably with the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, but while the songs are juvenilia, they already show Britten’s sympathetic approach to word-setting. In his preface to the published score Britten writes, ‘although I hold no claims whatever for the songs’ importance or originality, I do feel that the boy’s vision has a simplicity and clarity which might have given a little pleasure to the great poet, with his unique insight into a child’s mind.’ Tit for Tat takes its name from the final song in the set, a fancy in which de la Mare imagines the poacher, Tom Noddy, becoming the poached.
Britten and Pears gave numerous recitals together, for which Britten would sometimes arrange folk-songs for inclusion as lighter numbers in the programme, often as encores. His unique and colourful arrangements breathe new life into these traditional songs, going well beyond the simple harmonies of those published by Cecil Sharp and others. His first arrangements were made in late 1941, while in America, at which time he was feeling homesick for England. This selection of folk-songs from the British Isles (he also arranged a number of French folk-songs) includes three songs that are not officially folk-songs, being attributable to an author, but which are regarded as being in the spirit of folk-songs: a setting of WB Yeats’s Down by the Salley Gardens (Salley gardens: a field of willow trees), Robert Burns’s Ca’ the yowes (‘Call the ewes to the knolls’, in which a stream rolls along (‘burnie rowes’), a song-thrush (‘mavis’) is heard, and a hobgoblin (‘bogie’) seen, by ‘Clouden’s silent towers’—the ruins of Lincluden Abbey), and a song from Charles Dibdin’s 1789 show The Oddities, Tom Bowling, a song familiar from its inclusion in Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, heard at many a Last Night of the Proms.
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